Devastation, disasters and coal deposits

The Hunter Valley has seen its fair shares of ups and downs over the last century, Jessica Darnbrough writes.

Mining in the Hunter Valley is as iconic to Newcastle as Andrew Johns.

Mining has been a way of life for Novocastrians for hundreds of years.

In 1791, convict William Bryant discovered coal at the mouth of the Hunter River.

By 1801 a coal settlement had been set up in the area.

Before mechanisation and conveyor belts were introduced, coal was shovelled by hand into skips, which were moved by ‘wheelers’ and horses pulling them to the main haul road.

The horses worked long, arduous hours but were well looked after by their ‘wheeler’ masters.

The Pelaw Main Colliery near Singleton, operated between 1901 and 1961 and took coal from the Homeville seam.

The establishment of this mine led to a dramatic increase in the population of Kurri Kurri.

With 6000 people inside its borders, Kurri Kurri became one of NSW’s largest towns.

The mine extracted coal using the bord and pillar system and used pit-horses to move skips to and from bords and working faces to the haulage ropes.

Valley of disasters

The Hunter Valley mining community has seen its fair share of disasters over the years.

On 1 September 1923, 21 miners lost their lives after an explosion in the Bellbird Colliery.

Twenty men entered the mine for the afternoon shift. Before rescue crews could arrive all of the miners and their horses had died.

The last casualty from the disaster was John Brown, manager of the Aberdare colliery, who died during the rescue operation.

A mass funeral was held for the victims and every pub and hotel in town closed for the procession.

Following the Bellbird Colliery disaster, unionised work forces championed for central rescue stations but mostly their pleas went ignored.

Throughout the 1920s conditions in the mines were poor.

The depression brought the Hunter Valley coal mining industry to its knees.

Labor Premier of NSW John Thomas Lang said: “one of the fallacies about the depression is the widely held view that it started with a fall in wool and wheat prices. That is not so. The first impact occurred in the coal industry. It registered the first mass misery and suffering in this country for a third of a century.”

A fall in commodity prices meant employers’ were unable to pay the miners adequate wages which sparked the first of several strikes and lockouts.

Employers’ wanted to reduce wages by more than 12%.

Employees and the worker’s union attempted to fight against the wage decrease by striking.

In response, advertisements went in the local paper calling for person’s to volunteer in the mines.

The first mine intended to be volunteer operated was the Rothbury Colliery at Branxton. This single act resulted in the now infamous Rothbury riots.

The riots resulted in the death of miner Norman Brown.

Jim Comerford, a 16 year old Rothbury miner, was present at the riots.

“Rothbury didn’t produce any coal worth producing and it cost the taxpayers of New South Wales an awful lot of money, but as long as the pit top was running and a little bit of coal was rattling into the wagons, that was enough to demoralise the miners.

In the book“At the coal face” Jim reflects on that day.

“I saw this bloke, in uniform, come out of the bush — he was one of those blokes who could shave a dozen times a day and still look black. He pulled his arm across his chest, aiming the revolver deliberately at Wally [a miner Jim was marching beside] and shot him in the throat. Christ! It is the sort of thing you can’t believe your seeing. Later I was told that the bloke who shot Wally emptied his revolver and ran back into the compound.”

Since that time, the Hunter Valley mining district has grown.

New mining methods helped extract greater amounts of coal.

However, the Hunter Valley mining industry has not been without incident.

One such incident was the 1996 Gretley mining tragedy.

On November 14, four miners drowned in a mining shaft 150m underground in the Gretley Colliery after cutting into an adjoining disused mine full of water.

More recently, miner Colin Jones amputated his own arm before paramedics could reach him.

In 2003, Jones was working at the West Wallsend Colliery when his tractor overturned, pinning his arm underneath.

Fearing petrol was leaking and concerned the machine would explode Jones used his Stanley knife to remove his arm.

Today, a memorial erected at Cessnock commemorates the 1,537 mines who have lost their lives to the trade.

The World Wars

Many mines closed during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

They reopened during World War II which were profitable years for the mine-owners although unrest continued over pay and conditions.

The 1950s saw the demise of horses and the implementation of more refined equipment and appliances.

New mining equipment was heavier than before rendering horses useless.

By the 1960s most of Newcastle’s principle coal mines had closed and were replaced by mines set further inland.

In 1963 the first mechanised longwall mining method was introduced into Australia.

As the depth of cover in room and pillar mining increased, miners found that pillar extraction became increasingly difficult, which increased the popularity of the longwall technique.

The longwall system allowed the removal of an entire seam in blocks by carrying a continuous face in each block leaving no pillars.

The lucrative nature of the industry was being realised by the 1970s.

Growing markets led to huge levels of investment, bigger and more complex operations, equipment and mine planning technology.

With the development of new longwalling methods, came the improvement of longwall equipment.

Today, the most popular method of coal haulage is by electrically driven shuttle cars or battery haulers that collect coal from the continuous miner, dump it on the section conveyor and return it to the continuous miner.

Although strictly speaking, there are no continuous haulage systems in place in Australia, various continuous haulage methods have been tried and tested with little success.

However, it seems as though a linear continuous mining system may soon become available.

A flexible belt haulage system, the flexiveyor, which is a series of cascading conveyor belts mounted on wheels, provides a permanent link between the continuous miner and the section conveyor belt, which moves coal out of the mining system.

The system is currently being tested in the Canadian Potash mines and will be adapted to suit Australian conditions before it makes the grand trip over.

Today & tomorrow

In recent years the Hunter Valley has enjoyed a period of extraordinary growth and prosperity and the outlook is for further growth.

The Newcastle Infrastructure Group (NCIG) was established in 2005 by a group of coal producers.

The NCIG is currently building a third coal export terminal in Newcastle and aims to load the first ship during the second half of 2009.

A lot is currently being done to improve the production of Australia’s greatest export.

In September 2006, The Austar coal mine located in the Maitland coalfields became the first longwall top coal caving system to be designed, manufactured and operated outside China.

According to the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) mining and exploration 2007 magazine, the system has already seen a significant increase in resource recovery from Austar with coal recovery in excess of 88 % compared to 40% when the mine was operating under the conventional longwall system.

However, it is not just the speed at which coal can be extracted that is improving.

Bottlenecks in freight transport at Sandgate near Newcastle have caused headaches for some time.

Coal trains have been forced to queue for hours in order to let passenger train services through.

Since this time, a new rail line has been constructed allowing dedicated coal lines to run under an overpass carrying the main passenger and commercial freight lines.

The resolution of queuing at Sandgate has also eliminated the effects on coal train movements throughout the Hunter Valley.

In July 2007, coal operations were effected by 36 hours of unprecedented heavy rainfall.

The area which had previously been in drought, was suddenly declared a flood zonehalting mining operations in several fields.

Bulga Coal mine, located on the outskirts of the Hunter Valley received over 3000 megalitres in 48 hours.

Days before, Bulga had been forced to purchase water to combat the shortage caused by the drought.

The Hunter Valley has enjoyed its ups and downs over the last few centuries.

However, with the mining boom continuing in strength, it seems the next few years will continue to be prosperous for the Novocastrians.

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